Q: I have been following the recent news stories about the E. coli outbreak in North Carolina. As a mother, how do I tell the difference between diarrhea caused by a stomach virus and something more serious such as E. coli?
The recent E. coli outbreak has been devastating and tragic to many families and has raised the level of public awareness. Escherichia coli (abbreviated E. coli) is a type of bacteria present in the intestinal tract of humans and animals. Most types of E. coli are harmless and play a role in digestion. Certain kinds, however, can lead to infection and disease.
One can contract E. coli via ingestion of contaminated water or food or contact with infected animals or people. Symptoms include fever, diarrhea (often bloody) and stomach cramps. In most cases, the illness resolves without complications. Young children and elderly are at the highest risk for severe disease.
There is no specific treatment for E. coli, thus the focus is on prevention. IV fluids may help with dehydration. Antibiotics are not recommended and may worsen the overall course.
About 5 to 10 percent of people who become infected will develop a potentially deadly complication called hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS). HUS involves anemia caused by the destruction of red blood cells, low platelet levels and renal failure. Signs of HUS would typically present after several days of diarrhea and include pale skin, fatigue and decreased urination.
Children (and adults) who have diarrhea and fever, blood in the stools, signs of HUS (see above) or diarrhea that is not improving after three to four days should seek medical care. Anyone with a known exposure to E. coli should see a health care professional at the onset of diarrhea. For more information on E. coli, visit cdc.gov.